Alchemy & the Transformative Moment
Anne Jackson talk at 'Transience & Transformation', a one-day workshop; organised by Egenis,
University of Exeter, Devon, UK,
2nd November, 2011
When planning today's event, Professor Steve Hughes suggested the title "Alchemy and the Transforming
Moment" for my talk. I readily agreed to his suggestion. 'Alchemy' refers to my most recent work, currently installed at Egenis on the Exeter University campus, and entitled 'The Witchcraft
Series: Alchemists'. The term 'transforming moment' can refer both to the alchemical process, and to the experience of human creativity.
In this work, I juxtapose "hermetic", "magical" signs, redrawn from a medieval manuscript, with diagrams from biochemical research. The formulae represent the current research areas of Nicholas Smirnoff, Professor of Plant Physiology at Exeter University. Above the magical signs, on the left-hand side of the piece, is the personal seal said to have been designed for himself by John Dee, astrologer and alchemist to Queen Elizabeth the First. Below the depicted chemical formulae, for a long chain hydrocarbon, and for Anthocyanin, is an Exeter University barcode.
I made this piece as part of a long-term project called 'The Witchcraft Series', in which I address contemporary and historic ideas surrounding witchcraft. I find it a fruitful metaphor for some modern day attitudes and political situations.
Given the contemporary cultural default-position of viewing science with fear and suspicion, I was interested in the idea of recasting cutting-edge biochemistry as modern-day magic.
Alchemy arrived in Western Europe in the Twelfth Century. Its origins are thought to have been Graeco-Egyptian, preserved in Arabic texts. Alchemy required extensive learning, at a time when few could read, and was thus an elite pursuit. The translation of the first Arabic book on alchemy into Latin was arguably one of the first steps to modern science. Enquiring minds in the west were exposed to new words from the Arabic, including alkali, alcohol, naphtha, elixir, and alchemy itself.
Alchemists believed that by engaging in the right sequence of procedures, the learned practitioner could create the Philosopher's Stone. This useful item could transform lead into gold, create the elixir of youth, and confer immortality upon its creator.
Alchemy is often regarded as a proto-science. Its practitioners included Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton. According to Richard Kieckhefer in his book 'Magic in the Middle Ages', "alchemists would spend years working over increasingly complex furnaces and laboratories, attempting to refine, sublimate, fuse and otherwise transform their various chemicals. In the process they produced much improvement in the tools of experimentation; their furnaces and stills, for example, contributed to the techniques of later chemical experimentation." (1)
As paraphrased by Kieckhefer, Thomas Norton, a fifteenth-century Bristol alchemist, wrote that "the alchemist's mind must be in accord with the work itself, properly stable and comprehending. The workmen must be in accord with the craft, working in orderly shifts. The instruments must be in accord with the work, all the vessels having the proper shapes and materials. The place too must be in accord with the work, without drafts or other disturbances." (2) From my lay person's perspective, this sounds quite a lot like the ideal requirements of a modern lab.
Referring back to the title of my talk, 'Alchemists' is the first work in which I have specifically addressed "alchemy". I have much wider experience of the "transforming moment". As I trust any artist or creative thinker does, I experience it frequently. In the work context, it begins with the first occurrence of the idea in my mind, and continues through to the completion of the work. Arguably, each moment of the process is transformative. The nature of art is to create something that wasn't there before.
In contemporary academic art terminology, my work would be defined as skill-based. I transform my ideas into concrete artefacts through painstaking manual techniques. This process can be seen as a series of specific transformational stages.
When I want to develop an idea, usually after long thought and research, I collage and paint on paper to create a material form that I can work on. From this drawing, or 'cartoon', I create a knotted tapestry. As artists do nowadays, I have a range of practices, but this is the one I employ most frequently. It is a slow, archaic technique. I liken it to stone carving. The actual manifestation of the object requires hours and hours of repetitive, meditative labour by hand.
From the perspective of contemporary art practice, such skill-based work is often seen as retrograde and insufficiently rigorous in intellectual terms, but it is the language to which I often return in order to express my ideas.
When writing this talk, I looked up my co-participants online, in order to gauge the tone and approach intended for this art-science axis. I was interested to find a number of common themes among us, as we come from such diverse directions. I read some lecture notes by Andy Klunder, on "Umberto Eco and the Open Work", which had strong resonances for me in my approach to my work. In his précis of Eco's semiotics he says, "We have a need to construct rational explanatory structures; structures which are not 'real', but rather are provisional, hypothetical constructs of the mind, and we must recognise that nothing, finally, can be explained." (3) To me this statement characterises the creative intention to communicate a clear idea while also allowing other, transient, less conscious meanings to emerge.
I recently made a small piece entitled 'Is This a Magic Charm?' The question is in the title because it is an image derived from a good luck charm found buried in a Welsh cow barn, written on paper and rolled up in a bottle. Was it a charm, or a piece of nonsense? Is my interpretation of it a charm, or a work of art? Does knowing its title, and wondering about its purpose, transform its meaning?
This is a recent work in the 'Witchcraft Series'. I have also made a number of large tapestries depicting aspects of witch persecution in Early Modern Europe. The works include 'The Great European Witch-Hunt: The word 'witch' in ten languages', and 'Witch-Hunt: Maleficium (In Memoriam)'.
The earliest-known conception of witches was that they were women who could transform themselves into animals or birds. The Romans feared women they called 'Striga', who could change into owls, in another version of the 'transformative moment'.
The Witchcraft Series arose from finding a monument in Rougemont Gardens, Exeter, to the Devon Witches. Exeter was the site of the last hangings for witchcraft in England, in 1682. The tapestry entitled 'The Devon Witches: Judgement' was the first that I made in the Witchcraft series, and is currently hanging in Egenis. A transformative moment occurred in my thinking when I wanted to use a nude female figure in this work. As an old second-wave feminist, I have made many works interrogating the use of the female nude in Western art. Thus, the only feminine form I felt I could use was my own. I made a series of body prints, one of which I used in this work, and another in one entitled 'The Devon Witches: Half-Hidden Signs', also hung at Egenis. Covering myself with paint, transferring the resulting marks to paper, and bringing the image to its final form felt quite transformative.
For 'Half-Hidden Signs' I researched the beliefs of modern-day 'white' witches. The English West Country is rich in its varieties of alternative health practitioners and therapists, and quite a number of them are happy to be included in this category. I like the juxtapositions created between modern-day ideas and the underlying strata of rural folklore and beliefs. The sense of multi-layered narratives and views of reality is something that continues to interest me.
For many years I have used the rich surface, and 'nice', soft, seductive qualities of my chosen medium, to interrogate cultural norms and assumptions. For example, as I mentioned before, I made a series in the late 1990's entitled 'The Old Masters' in which I regendered one of the traditional tropes of the Western fine art tradition. In tapestries such as 'After Goya: The Naked Major' and 'Old Master 2' I pastiched the usual role of the female nude, stripping traditional male power figures of their trappings and posing them in rich, sensuous settings from 'Old Master' paintings. Given our fast-moving culture, and rapidly-changing intellectual climate, I know that these arguments can now appear a bit passé. But there are still plenty of examples of contemporary painting, perhaps in the more 'traditional' or commercial art galleries, which make me think there is still some way to go.
I have two other tapestries hanging at Egenis. They are entitled 'Leaving Eden 1& 2'. I made them for a site-specific exhibition at the Eden Project in 2004.
The Eden Project is well known for its positioning on environmental issues. At the time the exhibition was being planned, the controversy about genetic modification was at its height. There seemed to be a great deal more heat than light generated by the debate.
Another of my co-participants today, Jean Harrington, refers in her Genomics Network profile to her examination of "slippery-slope arguments" surrounding stem-cell research. Research in genetic modification is perceived in the same way.
I was able to observe the GM debate from close at hand, as my husband, Nicholas Smirnoff, had recently discovered the metabolic pathway by which plants make Vitamin C, and this had implications for future work in genetic engineering.
I decided to make a pair of tapestries to hang on the wall in the Warm Temperate Biome at the Eden Project. The location made me think of a recent trip into a prehistoric cave in France. There, I had seen some of the earliest-known marks made by humans. The original visitors or occupants of the cave had dipped their hands in ochre pigment, and made handprints on the walls. It seemed no different from what we would do, deliberately leaving a trace, something to say "I was here". I wanted to incorporate the handprints of molecular biologists, whose work would be applicable to genetic engineering, in my Eden pieces.
In my position, as partner to an academic biologist, I can hardly avoid being aware of the gulf between the popular perception of scientists and my personal experience of them. It felt important, when making a work about the human mark, that I should involve people I knew on a human level. The handprints in these tapestries are those of Nick Smirnoff, Stephan Gatsek and Suzanna Rolinski, two of his researchers at the time. They were very kind and remarkably enthusiastic about dipping their hands in red paint for me.
For the second tapestry I reconfigured various elements and added the chemical formulae for the L-galactose pathway, the route by which plants make Vitamin C, discovered by Nick Smirnoff and his colleague Glen Wheeler. The tapestries were duly exhibited in the Warm Temperate Biome at the Eden Project. I also made an installation called 'Leaving Eden 3', putting forty small, shaped tapestries of the same handprints into the soil below the wall where the larger works were hung.
Human beings have always intervened in our world, it's what we do. To me genetic modification is just another tool we've fashioned. Also, in the panic and hysteria of the public debate, I feel the arguments for ways in which these technologies can benefit humans and the planet are usually drowned out. It could be seen as yet another witch-hunt, if you will.
I'll finish with an installation I made last year, entitled 'Lamiarum Unguenta', the Latin term for 'witches' flying ointment'. The chemical formula depicted is for atropine, thought to be the active ingredient in the historic unguent.
I have spoken a bit about alchemy, and described some transformative moments from my personal practice. Preparing this talk has given me the opportunity to consider the role of transience as well. The unending evolution of ideas into material practice, with the underlying knowledge that all is impermanent, is part of my everyday experience. On an intellectual level, I hope my work will last for centuries. I use good-quality materials and create structures that are physically quite strong. I advise patrons on the easy care and cleaning of my works. But as Deborah Valoma wrote in 'Textile: The Journal of Cloth and Culture', "Our materials are, by their very nature, transient...textiles yield to nothingness. They surrender to pressures of time and trauma-subject to staining, decomposition and inevitable ruin."(4)
Although I know my works won't last, and are transient, I experience them as my voice in the world. Though the words and sounds will cease, and the echoes die away, I still think it's worth speaking, or at least leaving a handprint, now while I'm here.
1. Kieckhefer, Richard. 2000. 'Magic in the Middle Ages'. Cambridge. Cambridge University Press. p.134.
2. Ibid. p. 135.
3. Klunder, Andy. Online lecture notes 'Umberto Eco and the Open Work' for course 'Thinking Practices (Critical Studies Stage 1). University of Plymouth.
4. Valoma, Deborah. 'Dust Chronicles'. Textile: The Journal of Cloth & Culture. Vol 8. Issue 3. November 2010. p.262. Oxford. Berg.